Oregon’s hospitality industry employs more people than any other business sector besides health care. And even during the pandemic — a time that majorly challenged traveling — visitors to Oregon spent nearly $11 billion in the state in 2021. But keeping the industry growing will take skilled workers, which is where ProStart comes in. ProStart is a nationwide career technical education program supported by the Oregon Hospitality Foundation. The two-year culinary arts and restaurant management program includes 4,000 Oregon high school students from 40 schools around the state.
On Monday, students showcased their months of hard work at the Oregon ProStart Championships, the capstone event for the curriculum. With just two butane burners, culinary teams competed to bring together a three-course meal in under an hour, while management teams developed the concept for a new restaurant, from menu to marketing.
Ken Henson is vice chair of the Oregon Hospitality Foundation and was the lead culinary judge for the event. He joined OPB’s “All Things Considered” host Crystal Ligori to talk through how the competition played out.
Crystal Ligori: The Oregon ProStart Championship sounds kind of like a combo of “Iron Chef” and “Shark Tank.” So what do the students do in that competition?
Ken Henson: On the management competition, students present a complete business plan with the SWOT analysis, organizational chart, menu and menu cost setting, and market plan. They are presented with a series of impromptu questions which they do not know in advance, to judge their critical thinking skills. So it’s a lot like “Shark Tank.” Students have to think on their feet [and] really have thought through their business plan and their marketing strategies. And it’s just a thrill to watch these students being professionals.
Ligori: And then what about the culinary side of things?
Henson: On the culinary side, students plan a three-course menu where each course has to really work well together. They cost out and price the menu to ensure profitability. And they have 60 minutes to prepare a three-course meal. And I mean 60 minutes — if they go over, they get docked, if they go under, they get docked. And they’re doing it all on two butane burners.
Ligori: Wow, not even a real kitchen setup! And you were the lead culinary judge, so what are you looking for when you’re watching this competition?
Henson: You know, we judge everything from safety, sanitation, knife skills, communication techniques, timing, how well the flavors are balanced, the details in which they have costed out their menu items. We’re looking at all aspects of the skills needed to perform at the highest levels of our industry, from communication to body language. We’re talking about 16- or 17-year-old kids [who] can do it as well or better as some professionals that I’ve worked with.
Ligori: And I know that Crook County High School took home first in the culinary competition and McMinnville High School took first in management. Can you talk about the winning teams, what the winning dishes were and what the winning business was?
Henson: Absolutely! Crook County on the culinary side [for] their starter they served sautéed shrimp with anchovy caper sauce, romesco sauce with fried capers. The entrée was pan-seared pork medallions with Brussels sprouts and Granny Smith apple slaw with black garlic sauce and chili sauce. And for dessert, they made a chocolate mousse in a fried pistachio crust with blackberry sauce and crystallized sugar accents. And the plate presentation was beyond spectacular.
Ligori: And what about the winning business?
Henson: McMinnville won the management competition, and their concept was a food truck concept called the Twisted Taco. Their business plan was so professionally done. Their critical thinking skills were on point and they really sold this project — talk about “Shark Tank” — I’m waiting for the Twisted Taco truck to come to my neighborhood.
Ligori: Can we talk a little bit about why a technical training program like ProStart is so important to Oregon’s hospitality sector?
Henson: It should come as no surprise that the pandemic really put the brakes on restaurants in the state of Oregon. Forty-eight percent of operators say that their restaurant currently does not have enough staff to meet its existing customer demand. That information just came out this week. Our industry is hurting desperately, as so many other industries are, for qualified people. And restaurants are a great opportunity: They’re the No. 1 women-owned business in the United States and I believe the No. 1 minority-owned business in the United States.
To me, restaurants are the great equalizer. Food is one thing we all have in common, and success in restaurants is not hard to achieve. You don’t have to have a four-year degree; you can come straight out of high school or be in high school and start a career that’s long lasting. I started out as a miscreant in this industry and 30 years later have owned and operated restaurants, been director of operations, a corporate chef. The sky’s the limit in this industry.